D&D Monster Naming Conventions

JeDi Wiker recently made the point on EN World that he finds the new D&D 4e monster names ((“kobold skirmisher,” “hobgoblin warcaster,” “deathjump spider”) too similar to D&D Miniatures naming conventions, which thus lessens the D&D feel of the game for him.

I do think that the CMG and new D&D names are very similar, but I don’t think the design decision was “let’s make them closer”. (Unlike some of the mechanical decisions made for the new edition of DDM, which were intended to bring them closer to 4e).

Rather, I think this change is due to a fundamental change in how we approach D&D, and it’s actually something that really began in 3e, not 4e. We just (mostly) hid it until now.

If you were to ask me during my AD&D playing days what my character was, I’d reply “a human magic-user”. Now, we already see the genesis of the 4e monster naming scheme: I have a race and a class. The big difference between AD&D and 3e/4e is that if you asked me what I was fighting, I would have replied with “an ogre” or “an orc”.

The big change of 3e was to give monsters class levels.

When you do this, it is no longer enough to say, “it’s an ogre”. You need to describe it further… thus: “an Ogre Rogue” or “an Ogre Scout”. We’re almost at the 4e naming system already.

However, we’re also at the heart of one of the major problems with 3e: Preparation time for NPCs. Over and over I have heard complaints about how time-consuming it is to make high level NPCs. The expanded power of the system is great, but, oh, the complexity! (Not only that, the calculation of CR got more and more inaccurate). Towards the end of 3.5e, Wizards experimented with giving premade Monster/Class combinations in various books. For the most part they weren’t well received (“we can do this ourselves!”) although there were some that were appreciative. What were better received were the unusual combinations and those cases where new special abilities were granted to the monsters… things that lay outside the strict race/class combinations.

With 4e, this idea of giving different versions of common monsters – basically race/class combos, but without the strict rules for creation that could be such a pain in 3e – will be there from the start of the Monster Manual. However, there is a problem. What do we call them?

AD&D (and before) had shown the way – Race/Class. However, these creatures were no longer strictly belonging to a “class” in the way that it was understood in 3e. There’s no predefined name – so the name that was chosen was one descriptive of what they do. Kobold Skirmisher (4e) and Kobold Scout (3e) are essentially the same naming convention.

Jumping back a bit to the beginning of 3.5e, this was also the time that D&D Miniatures was released. The first set (Harbinger) had a bunch of minis straight out of the monster manual – Displacer Beast; Ogre, and so forth. However, it also had five different orcs. One of the requirements of any collectable game is to be able to distinguish between the figures. You couldn’t call them all “Orc”. To make things worse, four of the orcs were basically fighters. Orc Fighter 1, Orc Fighter 2, Orc Fighter 3? Nah, hardly the most inspiring of names.

So, you go descriptive. Orc Warrior. Orc Spearfighter. Orc Archer. Orc Berserker. As the game goes on, you create another Ogre. Ogre Ravager… that’s a descriptive term. It’s also evocative, which is important. (Human Magic-User isn’t really that evocative… Human Enchanter? Much more so).

D&D 4e seems to be copying DDM because it had to deal with the naming convention problem before D&D did. But really, the naming convention dates from the early days of D&D… just now upscaled to more than just humans and demihumans.

As for the Deathjump Spider…

I live in Australia. Being an Australian, I have a certain familiarity with the names of various poisonous creatures. Here’s the thing: if you get bitten by a spider, you really need to know what type of spider it was so that you can be injected with the correct antivenin. They’re not all called “spider”. No, in this wonderful world we have Trap-Door Spiders, Black Widow Spiders, Sydney Funnel-Web Spiders, Redbacks, Huntsmen, Jumping Spiders…

Hmm: they’re descriptive names. Some of how they appear, some of what they do.

One of my most hated things about D&D is when a monster is named a bunch of random syllables. I know what a Mind Flayer or an Ochre Jelly or a Displacer Beast is. Illithid? I have trouble pronouncing it! There are invented names that work, but for every one that works there are dozens that don’t. (Flumph and Cifal come to mind; I’m trying to think of a 3e one that doesn’t work, but they’ve escaped my mind at present… not memorable enough!)

For monsters that resemble other monsters – or more particularly real-life animals – I prefer that the name stay somewhat easy to remember. It’s a spider! What type? “Deathjump”.

Now, the actual form of “Deathjump” may be too anime/CMG/MMORPG for some people, and I sympathize with that, but at least it’s descriptive and of more import than being attacked by a Moragon would have (Moragon being a word I’ve just made up. Probably).

Of course, you can get used to any word if you use it enough, but for most D&D monsters, they’ll only really ever be seen once… and not for very long!

This doesn’t change the fact that some people – like JD – will feel that the game is less “D&D” as a result, but it might at least provide some context for why the naming conventions have changed… even if they haven’t that much!


  1. eleran

    Very well thought out and put together post Merric. You have really articulated this matter well. I don’t have a real problem with the naming conventions that are being used. But that may be because naming things in my own campaigns has always felt kind of like the bane of my existence anyway.


  2. evildmguy

    Very well said.

    In general, I think DND has had naming problems for many years. I think they tried to distill things down to one word and I don’t think it leaves room for growth in the game.

    In 3E, as the DM, if I say a warrior is going to attck, do I mean a person who is fighting? Or the NPC class? Same for arch mage, mymridon, etc. They all mean a specific type of fighter but some of them represent prestige classes as well.

    In 1E, with all of the title, it was the same thing. If I used a term specific to the title, was I indicating a level, using flavor text, or referring to a specific real world style?

    2E had it with kits. And the problem was that the Kit names were more evocative and great to use but as a DM I couldn’t because it was like using a definition of something specific on something general. For example, to say bladedancer do I mean the kit or someone who is graceful with the blade?

    This is why I have no problems with the non standard names for standard classes. I can now use the generic term “fighter” when speaking about a person who fights and it isn’t a specific class or term anymore.




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